When he passed away late last year, legendary cartoonist, historian and creator’s rights advocate Jerry Robinson left behind one of the deepest and most respected legacies in the history of the medium. And all of that legacy earned its due last week at New York’s Time Warner Center in New York City where DC Comics held a special memorial and tribute for the co-creator of the Joker, Robin and so much more.
Amidst poster-sized printouts of some of his most famous comic book covers and political cartoons, comics creators, executives, fans and family members gathered to discuss Robinson’s life and work. At the front of the room sat Robinson’s widow Gro, his daughter Liv Robinson-White and his son Jens who played Master of Ceremonies after a brief introduction by DC Co-Publisher Dan DiDio.
“It truly is a celebration for Jerry Robinson,” DiDio said. “We have a lot of people here from DC, family members and friends who know so many wonderful stories about Jerry. And what we like to do at these celebrations is keep the mic open and keep a very free-flowing format so that we can share our stories and experiences of Jerry…I got a chance to first meet Jerry at the ‘Dark Knight’ premier, and in a situation that big where you’re meeting somebody and you’re in awe of who they are, it’s overwhelming. And Jerry was just pitching me on cartoonists and fun ways to work with DC Comics. I’m sitting there in complete shock that I’m being pitched by him, first of all, and that he was still that active and aware of what the industry was about and also trying to change it.”
Gro Robinson spoke to the many personal details of her husband’s life, but also how his work ethic and ideas carried over from the comics and into his personal and business dealings no matter where he went. “I’m in awe of being in the presence of so many of the creators and lovers of the comics — the most vital part of Jerry’s world,” she said. “Although I lived with Jerry for more than half a century, I have much to learn about this part of his life…Jerry’s life was a triumph. His death was not a tragedy. He lived a long and fulfilling life, doing what he loved to do. He achieved most of his lifetime goals, and past New Year’s day, he would have been 90, and we would have celebrated our 54th wedding anniversary.”
Mrs. Robinson related the story of their life and family from the couple’s meeting at a Greenwich Village party where neither knew the hostess (they left early to meet his fellow cartoonists at the bar) through his years taking drawing boards on vacation with their young family so he could hit his deadlines on features like the “Jet Scott” newspaper strip. “[Jerry] worked hard, but not in isolation,” she said. “He liked having people around — children, pets, radio and TV blasting and our cat George curled up on his drawing board. He had an amazing knack of being in the middle of his own world and at the same time shutting everything out.”
That work ethic came up often over the course of the next hour as well as Robinson’s many works from crafting countless comic stories in the Golden Age to launchiing the International Cartoon Feature syndicate with his son. “Economist” cartoonist Kevin Kallaugher told a tale of Robinson’s humor when the pair traveled abroad to an international cartoonists conference only to find themselves performing a last minute version of “The Chattanooga Choo Choo” complete with Robinson’s own choreography, and “Beetle Bailey” creator Mort Walker related how it was Robinson who turned the National Cartoonist’s Society from an informal social club to an organization to protect and promote the rights and work of cartoonists.
Comics legend Irwin Hasen told the story of how Robinson called him the day he got out of the army and offered the then struggling cartoonist a gig drawing the newspaper strip “The Goldberg’s” because Jerry felt it didn’t pay enough for him to take himself. Hasen’s relation of how the job led to him meeting Frank Sinatra earned big laughs from the assembled crowd, which included many members of DC’s current Batman editorial team such as Mike Marts, longtime editor and comics historian Danny Fingeroth, Abrams ComicArts representatives like Charlie Kotchman and many, many others.
“Batman” film producer Michael Uslan spoke to Robinson’s later years as a figure in the comics community and in the wider pop culture spectrum. “The past number of years, Jerry and I had a little dog and pony show…where I’d interview Jerry on stage. Jerry would take all the spotlight. You never knew what he was going to say next. It managed to bring him to the attention of an entire new generation of fans who were interested in comics, in graphic storytelling, in the history of comics and in Batman. It was so much fun to be doing that for so long with Jerry.”
Uslan also spoke about Robinson’s appearance at the premier of “The Dark Knight” during which the producer insisted Robinson walk the red carpet, where he ended up being quite the hit with reporters. “It took Jerry just over a half hour to walk the red carpet, and he was in his glory. Inside, I was able to introduce him to some of the actors who had played characters Jerry had co-created or created the original visualization for, like Danny Devito for the Penguin and Aaron Ekhart for Two Face and Michael Cain for Alfred. It was a wonderful, memorable night that I will never forget.”
Longtime DC Comics staffer Anthony Tollin recounted how “I first met Jerry a few months into my time at DC Comics in 1974. I was one of the editors of [in house fanzine] ‘The Amazing World of DC Comics.’ We were going to have a Batman issue in #4, and they originally wanted me to interview Bob Kane, but he backed out because he decided he wanted to hold his stories for his autobiography. So sitting in the Warner Bros. cafeteria, I thought, ‘If we can’t have stories from Bob Kane’s point of view, why don’t we get the real stories from Jerry Robinson?'”
Tollin went on to talk about Robinson’s role as one of the first teachers of comics art along with Burne Hogarth and how his earliest classes at New York’s New School included students like Don Heck and Steve Ditko (who attended thanks to a scholarship Robinson helped provide). He also recounted his time working with the artist on the Kennedy Center retrospective of the comics — one of the first major exhibitions of the art form, of which Robinson participated in many. “He was not someone like a Bob Kane who only talked about himself. Jerry would talk about everyone, and he was such a repository of knowledge. Our understanding of the history of comic books and comic art is so much richer to have had him here as the living memory of the art form.”
In one of the more entertaining recollections, Neal Adams went deep into Robinson’s work that impacted other cartoonists — particularly the battle in the 1970s to earn pay and credit for Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Adams had flown the pair to New York for a press tour aimed at shaming DC and Warners into giving the creators their due, and Robinson joined in the fight immediately. When negotiations got tough, Adams “disappeared” to a convention in Texas leaving one particularly irate Warners exec hanging after he had refused to give Siegel and Shuster a credit on future Superman stories. The exec called Robinson hoping to find a run around, and by the time that conversation was finished, Jerry had not only gotten them the credit, but bonus money to pay their travel expenses during Adams’ PR campaign. When Adams heard the news in Texas, the first person he told was Jack Kirby.
“I grew up, like everybody else who has a brain, reading comic books. Everyone else became Republicans,” joked Adams, referencing Robinson’s passionate liberal nature. The artist added of discovering Jerry’s work, “Of course, I loved Robin because he was great. I loved Joker because he was rotten. And I found it was Jerry Robinson who sort of created them, and then Bill Finger,” which led to a realization of cartooning beyond comic books. His overall lesson from Robinson’s life: “Don’t do the same crap all the time.”
Finally, former DC Publisher Paul Levitz spoke, noting that it fell on him to negotiate with Robinson his own credit and pay for the creation of the Joker and other characters. “It was complicated to solve problems from before I was born, but it was wonderful to shake hands at the end of it and have everyone happy,” Levitz said, adding, “We should have had all that happen sooner.”
In the end, he was happy to say that Robinson’s work continues to inspire, right up to the current “Dark Knight Rises” film where screenwriter Jonathan Nolan drew much from Jerry’s early comics and the Batman/Catwoman relationship portrayed therein. “It’s not over. It’s not remotely over,” Levitz said, calling the film is “a direct lineal imbuement of Jerry’s work…Jerry’s stuff will be inspiring people long beyond his life.”